NORTH MAYFAIR — Seafood City, a chain that specializes in Filipino grocery items, is a year away from opening its first Chicago outpost but neighbors are already anticipating the grocer's success, and the parking and traffic woes that will accompany it.
Representatives from the privately owned California-based chain met with members of the North Mayfair community Wednesday night to present their plan for renovating the Elston Kmart at 5033 N. Elston Ave., set to close in August.
The area's Filipino and Asian population made it the chain's top choice for its first foray east of Las Vegas, according to Rey Lacson, Seafood City's manager of property and store development.
"We're basically a pan-Asian market," he said.
Specialties include fresh bangus, or milkfish, flown in from the Philippines, as well as purple yam ice cream and kare-kare, an oxtail stew made with peanuts.
Though Seafood City is technically re-using the Kmart building, the structure will undergo a complete exterior makeover, according to architect Peter Theodore, whose firm specializes in similar projects for clients such as Jewel-Osco and Walgreens.
Essentially, he's keeping the roof and a rear wall, and tearing down the rest, replacing it with brick, corrugated metal, panelized teak and expanses of glass.
"I wanted to peel off all the panels and start from new," Theodore said. "You're going to have a very modern building."
Seafood City plans to occupy half of the 87,000 square feet and employ 250 people. The remaining space will be leased to as many as four other retailers, according to Tom Lowe of First Equity Group, the Chicago-based real estate development firm consulting with Seafood City.
Those other tenants are yet to be determined, he said.
"We've been kind of quiet because of the Kmart connection, so we haven't been able to get out and market the additional retail," said Lowe.
Neighbors pleaded that no cellphone or dollar stores be allowed.
Lowe promised Seafood City, which has approval over co-tenants, would be "selective" in choosing its companion businesses.
"They're investing a lot of money here," he said.
While residents largely expressed support for Seafood City as a welcome addition to the neighborhood, they also aired concerns about the increased congestion a thriving business would likely bring to the area.
Among the issues raised: the potential for customer traffic to spill onto Keating Avenue, a residential street; the existing right-turn-only exit from the parking lot onto Elston, where perhaps a traffic signal is needed; and Seafood City's poor marks for managing its parking lots.
Online reviewers typically praise Seafood City's stores and "the only negative comments are about the parking lots," said Lynn Burmeister, president of the North Mayfair Improvement Association.
Now is the time to address whether the lot will be able to accommodate heavy use, she said.
"It's going to be a lot harder in three months to change it," said Burmeister.
Lowe noted that the lot appeared capable of handling the current crush of shoppers descending on Kmart's liquidation sale, but that Theodore's plan did include widening the parking spaces for easier maneuverability.
Also at the meeting was Michael Nelson, a resident of Forest Glen who attended Wednesday's forum to share his first-hand experience of Seafood City.
"I've been going to them for years," said Nelson, who spends a fair amount of time in California.
He described the stores — "Some of the cleanest I've ever seen" — as 65 percent seafood, with the rest devoted to produce, baked goods and Asian grocery items.
"They have fresh seafood from all over the world — fish I'd never heard of," Nelson said.
A food court-type setup allows customers to purchase seafood and have it cooked for them while they continue shopping, he explained.
"And they have great Korean barbecue, so I'm excited," said Nelson.
But first, Kmart needs to close its store and empty out the building.
Lowe said Seafood City would be looking, "optimistically," at a mid- to late-spring 2016 opening.
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